Jeff Fortenberry sentenced to probation for mendacity to federal brokers | Crime-and-courts

LOS ANGELES — Flanked by his spouse, trailed by a priest, a former staffer and…

LOS ANGELES — Flanked by his spouse, trailed by a priest, a former staffer and 5 of his attorneys, Jeff Fortenberry descended a hill exterior the federal courthouse downtown.


It was a a lot totally different place, and a a lot totally different vibe, than simply three months in the past, when Fortenberry defiantly strode into that courthouse to problem prices that he lied to federal brokers investigating the injection of overseas cash into his marketing campaign.

For one, the courthouse — with its L.A. courtyard nouveau design, full with gleaming glass and babbling brook water options — had reworked right into a fortress. An imposing inexperienced fence — akin to these surrounding a building zone or a jail’s train space — lined its perimeter, erected to maintain abortion-rights protesters out and courtgoers in.

For one more, Fortenberry entered by the makeshift gate a convicted felon. 3 times over. He confronted as much as 5 years of jail or 5 years of probation on every rely.

Andy Braner, Fortenberry’s former chief of workers, stored his chin lowered as he adopted his one-time boss by steel detectors. Requested how he was doing, Braner mentioned: “It’s the worst. It doesn’t get any worse.”

Persons are additionally studying…

Because it seems, it may have.

U.S. District Choose Stanley Blumenfeld declined to offer Fortenberry jail time.

As a substitute, Blumenfeld gave the 61-year-old former congressman two years of probation, a $25,000 positive and 320 hours of group service. And a little bit of a tongue lashing.

Fortenberry arrives

Former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry arrives on the federal courthouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday along with his spouse, Celeste, and his attorneys.

“What is evident is that Mr. Fortenberry turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the knowledge he was clearly offered,” Blumenfeld mentioned. “The proof clearly helps the discovering by the jury that Mr. Fortenberry was not blind and he was not deaf … He selected the improper path. He determined to reply with dishonesty somewhat than honesty. And mendacity, particularly on this context, is actually a severe matter.”

Prosecutor Mack Jenkins, an assistant U.S. lawyer, mentioned it’s so severe that it deserved six months in jail.

Jenkins urged the decide to rethink the probation sentence, noting that Fortenberry lied to federal brokers about his relationship with Dr. Eli Ayoub, a former Creighton physician who held a unclean fundraiser for him in an LA suburb in February 2016. Then, he lied once more when Jenkins himself met with Fortenberry and an lawyer. Throughout that interview, Fortenberry asserted that he knew Federal Election Fee laws — and denied that Ayoub had ever instructed him that the cash he obtained was money funneled by a Nigerian billionaire.

With out jail, Jenkins instructed the decide, different elected officers gained’t be deterred.

“Fortenberry had selection after selection after option to reside as much as his oath,” Jenkins mentioned. “Every time, he selected the improper method.”

Blumenfeld mentioned he appreciated the necessity for deterrence. Nonetheless, an evaluation of the previous three years confirmed that greater than 80% of federal defendants of the identical age and with the identical training as Fortenberry have obtained probation for a similar class of crimes, the protection mentioned.

And the decide argued: “I discover it tough to consider that anybody totally conversant in the info of this case will suppose that it’s value taking the danger that Mr. Fortenberry took right here.”

Blumenfeld mentioned he additionally needed to think about Fortenberry’s conduct towards his total character. Fortenberry’s protection crew submitted 64 letters on his behalf. Of them, Blumenfeld mentioned he discovered the letters from Fortenberry’s spouse, Celeste, and his 5 daughters notably compelling.

“By all accounts, one factor that each witness impressed upon … is that he’s an individual of excellent, sincere, ethical character,” Blumenfeld mentioned. “Even (a Democratic congresswoman) testified that Fortenberry is a person whose phrase will be counted upon and is usually trusted within the halls of a spot the place belief isn’t all the time one thing that may be relied upon.

“This doesn’t imply that the trail he took was acceptable or that the courtroom is in any method condoning it. It merely is measuring the conduct within the context of his historical past and his traits.”

Even with out jail, it was an unbelievable fall from grace for Fortenberry, a 17-year Republican consultant from Lincoln whom a staffer as soon as described as America’s “final nice statesman.”

Now, Fortenberry will go down in historical past as Nebraska’s first felonious congressman.

He had confronted as much as 15 years in jail after a jury swiftly convicted him in March of two counts of mendacity and one rely of concealing the supply of unlawful marketing campaign donations. A Nigerian billionaire had steered $30,000 in money to Fortenberry’s marketing campaign at a fundraiser in suburban Los Angeles. It’s unlawful for foreigners to donate to U.S. politicians.

Regardless of a number of warnings that the cash was soiled, Fortenberry didn’t disgorge it from his marketing campaign till 40 months later.

Fortenberry declined to handle the decide in courtroom however requested to handle him afterward. Observers couldn’t hear what Fortenberry mentioned, however Blumenfeld instructed the courtroom that Fortenberry thanked him for studying the 64 letters submitted in assist.

“All I wished to do was serve my nation,” Fortenberry mentioned, in accordance with the decide.

Fortenberry AP

Former Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and his spouse, Celeste, discuss to reporters Tuesday exterior the federal courthouse in Los Angeles.

Publish sentencing, Fortenberry walked exterior holding his spouse’s hand. He known as the entire ordeal, together with his resignation from Congress, “traumatic.” Requested if he had slept the evening earlier than, Fortenberry chuckled and looked for his phrases.

“We slept like a child,” Celeste Fortenberry chimed in. “When you may have a clear conscience, you sleep effectively.”

Randall Adkins, a College of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor, mentioned Tuesday was historic. In Nebraska’s 155-year historical past, Fortenberry is the one federally elected official to be convicted of a felony, not to mention three of them.

The one comparable case within the state’s 155-year historical past was the 1985 perjury conviction of a Nebraska lawyer basic who tried to cowl up his dealings with an bancrupt financial institution.

“His legacy is one in every of scandal,” Adkins mentioned of Fortenberry. “The factor I feel that’s harmful about that’s this: We’re in a time the place belief in elected officers is at an all-time low. If that’s how we bear in mind a member of Congress, it doesn’t bode effectively for our future.”

The longer term is evident for Fortenberry. He vowed to attraction, although overturning a jury verdict is the longest of lengthy photographs, particularly in federal courtroom.

Each the sentencing listening to and eve-of-trial briefs revealed some new nuggets about U.S. vs. Fortenberry:

Countering the protection’s picture that Fortenberry is circling the drain financially, the U.S. Probation Workplace indicated that Fortenberry has a internet value within the neighborhood of $1.1 million. And prosecutors famous that, even post-conviction, Fortenberry is now in a job making $144,000 a yr ($12,000 a month). The report didn’t specify the job, although Fortenberry labored for Sandhills Publishing in Lincoln earlier than his congressional profession.

It’s not clear whether or not Fortenberry’s felony conviction has value him his federal pension. The protection wrote that he may find yourself shedding it, however prosecutors say the federal government has given no indication that it has stripped him of it.

Fortenberry ignored much more warning indicators than initially reported. Followers of the case already knew that Fortenberry didn’t act on a number of strategies, even his personal instincts, that one thing was amiss with the $30,000 in donations he obtained at that Los Angeles fundraiser in February 2016. Add this to the image: In 2017, a yr after the fundraiser, Fortenberry texted Toufic Baaklini, the person who helped arrange the fundraiser.

Baaklini responded curtly that he had employed a legal protection lawyer and Fortenberry ought to rent one, too. After which the 4 of them may get collectively and speak about choices. Regardless of that dire textual content, Fortenberry didn’t hunt down an lawyer — or a gathering with Baaklini — to seek out out what was up. As a substitute, the congressman sought to arrange one other fundraiser.

Fortenberry may have prevented prices if he had purged the soiled cash. An FBI agent testified that they stored checking to see if Fortenberry had cleansed his marketing campaign warfare chest. Prosecutors famous of their sentencing temporary that Fortenberry may have prevented prices had he despatched the cash away. Ultimately, 40 months handed earlier than he lastly removed the soiled cash. By then, he had instructed too many lies and given the feds too many misdirections.

Adkins, the political scientist and affiliate dean at UNO, mentioned disgraced politicians appear to fall into three classes: those that are corrupt to start with, those that make a mistake and admit it, and those that “merely can’t admit they do something improper.”

Adkins mentioned Fortenberry falls into that final camp, together with former President Donald Trump. How else to elucidate why Fortenberry wouldn’t simply eliminate the $30,000, particularly when he had a marketing campaign warfare chest round $2 million?

“He couldn’t admit he was improper,” Adkins mentioned. “He nonetheless hasn’t.”

Adkins mentioned there are just a few the explanation why denial works for Trump however not Fortenberry:

Fortenberry isn’t as expert an orator as Trump.

Nebraska doesn’t have a historical past of embracing or forgiving private, ethical wrongdoing in native leaders. Adkins mentioned Nebraska isn’t distinctive on this. Past Chicago and Illinois politicians, higher Midwestern states have largely been occupied with moralistic, populist leaders. It doesn’t matter what some could take into consideration their politics, Adkins mentioned, at the moment’s Nebraska Republicans sometimes rapidly dispatch with wrongdoers. As proof, Adkins pointed to Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts railing towards a person Trump supported, Charles Herbster, within the governor’s race this yr. Eight girls have accused Herbster of groping. He misplaced the Republican major.

Equally, Ricketts dispatched with Fortenberry after this case first emerged. The governor threw his assist behind State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who on Tuesday took on State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks in a particular election to interchange Fortenberry.

Lies, even misdirections, don’t fly with federal brokers, and so they don’t fly in courtroom.

That final motive is maybe crucial think about Fortenberry’s fall. Fortenberry dug himself deeper and deeper along with his denials and the bumbled method he dealt with his interviews with federal brokers.

Fortenberry grew to become incensed that FBI brokers had proven as much as his Lincoln home unannounced in March 2019. He pulled rank, known as then-Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister to ensure the federal brokers have been who they mentioned they have been.

As soon as he came upon who they have been, he compounded the error. Any lawyer will let you know to not discuss to police with out an lawyer current, besides in instances the place you’re a sufferer.

As a substitute of calling an lawyer, Fortenberry insisted that the Lincoln law enforcement officials keep at his residence through the interview. After which he proceeded to disclaim figuring out the person within the photograph that FBI agent Todd Carter held up for him: Ayoub, the previous Creighton physician now training in Los Angeles.

Ayoub had held a fundraiser for Fortenberry at a suburban L.A. residence in February 2016. Individuals on the dinner had raised $36,000 — and Fortenberry known as it a rousing success.

Whereas Fortenberry initially was oblivious to it, the fundraiser adopted the A, B and C of a scandal: Ayoub had taken a bag of money offered by Baaklini, the founding father of In Protection of Christians, a gaggle set as much as shield Christians and different non secular minorities within the Center East. That bag of money arrived in L.A. through the son of Gilbert Chagoury — a billionaire linked to some of the corrupt regimes in Nigerian historical past.

Fortenberry sensed one thing was improper, noting to his fundraising advisor that the majority of the checks got here from individuals with the identical final identify. He didn’t act on that intuition.

His Republican colleagues did. Chagoury additionally had tried to funnel cash to the campaigns of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska and present California congressman Darrell Issa. Upon studying the donations have been from a foreigner, these three disgorged the cash from their marketing campaign coffers by donating it to charity.

Fortenberry took greater than three years — and two FBI interviews — to take action.

That led prosecutors and FBI to marvel: Was Fortenberry simply oblivious? Or was there one thing extra sinister? Did he need the donations as validation for his assist in a trigger that he had lengthy been involved with?

And: Did he plan to do it once more?

In 2018, Fortenberry known as Ayoub a couple of second fundraiser. Throughout that telephone name, Ayoub instructed him they might do it, but it surely wouldn’t be as profitable as a result of the “money” from the primary fundraiser “in all probability” got here from Chagoury.

From there, FBI brokers stored checking Fortenberry’s marketing campaign varieties to see if he had disgorged the cash. He hadn’t.

On the eve of sentencing, prosecutors basically acknowledged in a 30-page indictment that Fortenberry may have prevented all of this, together with possibly even prices, if he had merely “come clear.”

They got here to suppose that Fortenberry not solely knew the cash was questionable, but additionally that he embraced it as validation for his work with In Protection of Christians.

Fortenberry had helped to safe passage of a decision of condemnation of ISIS for ”genocide” within the Center East — which Baaklini described as an essential milestone for the motion to guard non secular minorities. Photographs confirmed him beaming beside Baaklini and Anna Eshoo, a California Democratic congresswoman, after being offered with plaques from IDC.

He was a featured speaker at IDC fundraising dinners, as soon as asking for a present of palms for anybody who had been in a position to say “no” to Baaklini. Seeing none, he joked that the one one who may say no to Baaklini was Baaklini’s spouse.

Staffers have mentioned that Fortenberry’s work with IDC was a part of efforts to “shield human dignity.”

Fortenberry was one of many few congressional members who had constituents straight affected by persecution within the Center East.

Lincoln is residence to one of many largest resettlements of Yazidis, a spiritual sect from Iraq. Over the previous decade, ISIS members have abused the Yazidis, raping, torturing and killing them. Lots of them settled in Lincoln and different U.S. cities.

Fortenberry attended one in every of their first rallies in Lincoln, the place he met a vibrant teenager who spoke little English. Regardless of her language limitations, Fortenberry employed the younger lady as an intern in his Lincoln workplace.

She mentioned she was endlessly grateful for Fortenberry’s involvement in what advocates known as “the trigger.”

The trigger had perks, inflicting prosecutors to look sideways at Fortenberry’s advocacy. He twice had dinner with the billionaire Chagoury — as soon as in Washington, D.C., and as soon as in Paris. He continuously requested Baaklini to go alongside fond greetings to “Gilbert.”

The weekend of the soiled fundraiser, the Lebanese Catholic group in L.A. bestowed an award on Fortenberry that gave him lifetime permission to, of all issues, journey a horse into any Lebanese Catholic church. Once more, Fortenberry might be seen beaming in footage.

Prosecutors pointed to Fortenberry’s “lack of regret and accountability.” Jenkins, Jamari Buxton and Susan Har mentioned Fortenberry’s refusal to come back clear brought on them to have to trace down and interview at the very least three Fortenberry associates they wouldn’t have interviewed.

Additionally they recommended that Fortenberry tried to throw them off the scent by suggesting he already had instructed workers to name off plans for a second fundraiser. He even confirmed them an electronic mail he mentioned proved it, however predated a telephone name during which he requested for the second fundraiser.

With “his public feedback and public relations technique to make himself the purported martyr of a political hit job by ‘California prosecutors’ and a biased FBI agent, it stays to be seen what classes defendant has taken from his prosecution and convictions,” Jenkins wrote.

Fortenberry’s protection primarily centered on character testimony — together with Eshoo’s assertion that Fortenberry is a “man of integrity … and an individual devoid of conceitedness.”

Supporters mentioned Fortenberry’s forte was in his efforts to guard human dignity. Therefore his invoice to supply funding for assist for these troubled with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s illness. Therefore his need to assist non secular minorities who’ve been oppressed within the Center East, together with the Yazidis.

A number of refugees from that small non secular sect have relocated to Lincoln. A type of refugees testified at trial that Fortenberry listened to them — and fought for them.

“The conviction on this case devastatingly impacted Mr. Fortenberry’s life,” lawyer John Littrell mentioned. “As soon as a public servant, Mr. Fortenberry resigned from Congress. Stripped of the rights to vote and possess a firearm, Mr. Fortenberry can not even take part in our democracy.”

Exterior courtroom after sentencing, Fortenberry maintained his innocence and mentioned his appeals will ensue.

Requested if he had been frightened that he was going to jail, Fortenberry paused.

“Effectively, you don’t know the outcomes right here,” Fortenberry mentioned. “We’re in a really unusual place right here, aren’t we?”

He put his palms up and motioned towards the bustling metropolis.

“It’s not Nebraska.”

When he reaches Nebraska, the previous congressman will test in with the probation workplace to start serving his two years.

With that, Fortenberry, his spouse and his lead lawyer walked the marble steps away from the courthouse. They exited the identical inexperienced gate he had entered Tuesday morning.

In a way, free. Aside from the felonies. Aside from the legacy.

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